Was it worth it to do the RV caravan to Baja?
100 steps from the tasting room to my bed – “Why, yes, I will have another tempranillo. And could I try the cab, also?” It was our last night in Baja and we were spending it at the Santo Tomas Vineyard and Winery about an hour south of Ensenada. The vineyard isn’t in the campground business so there were no hook-ups and not a ton of space – John had us packed in tighter than an unopened package of Lit’l Smokies. But it was well worth it. We had our own private tour of the vineyard, a sensory tasting, and of course the on-site wine store had stayed open late especially for us.
I knew it was going to be a terrible day on the water. It’d been windy, and when I took Brandi out for a run through the streets of Guerrero Negro that morning, there was already a stiff breeze that I knew would continue building. But we’d paid for this whale watching trip way back at the first meeting of the Baja Winters Caravan after listening to many glowing reports about it. We were going no matter what.
We’d arrived at the salt mining town of Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior) the afternoon before and were staying in the Malarrimo RV Park which was basically the parking lot of the Malarrimo Restaurant. Guerrero Negro is a flat, windswept, desolate-looking piece of real estate on the Pacific Coast just south of the Baja Sur state line. Although people started massacring whales in this area in the mid-1800s, the town itself was founded in 1957 by the salt mining company. There are two distinct sections of Guerrero Negro. The western part is where the middle and upper management employees of the plant live. It is a slice of American suburbia – paved, tree-lined streets, identical houses with driveways, garages, and yards, and company cars and trash cans parked by the curbs. The eastern side of town is where the manual laborers live and it was the typical Baja village with dirt, pot-holed streets and houses in various stages of construction with rebar sticking out in odd angles in odd places.
Almost everyone in the caravan was going on the whale-watching trip so we divided ourselves into groups of ten, piled into the vans, and listened to our guide’s informative and entertaining description of the community and the whales on the twenty minute drive out to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, where we boarded our skiffs. They were open boats with four benches spanning the width. The captain steered the 115 hp Suzuki from the stern. Soon we had pushed off the dock and were skimming along the tiny swath of smooth water in the lee of a huge coastal dune, only inches from the shore – our captain obviously knew what he was doing!
It was beautifully desolate – wind-shaped dunes for miles, sand blowing off their peaks like snow off a mountaintop. Soon though, we could see the white caps in the mouth of the bay. I knew that was going to be our destination. The swells grew and we slowed, finally barely idling as the bow rose and fell and salt-water sprayed over us. I’d dressed in layers culminating with a rain coat and rain pants, so temperature-wise, I was very comfortable. The water hitting us felt warm. But I wasn’t exactly sure how long my stomach would survive.
We drifted and bobbed along, seeing plumes of spray from whales off in the distance. It was beautiful, but the two full hours we were going to be on this boat started to look more like a prison sentence. Then our guide spotted a mother and a calf, not too far away. He motored closer and stopped. Our boat was directly in their path. The whales didn’t alter their course; they kept coming towards us. So very close now, maybe ten feet. Our skiff seemed so small; they seemed so huge. They dove under the boat. We all rushed to the side and looked down into the clear water to watch their bumpy, gray bodies gracefully glide past. They surfaced not too far away and our captain rearranged the boat to be in their path again.
This time they slowed as they got nearer. We looked into the water and could see them headed right for us. I was more than a little scared – these enormous dark masses slowly coming up at us from the depths. Did they know how huge they were? Did they have a memory somewhere in their brains of what atrocities our species had committed against them? About a foot from the boat they surfaced, calmly, stayed there for a few moments, then went under the boat again, coming up only inches from our port. These huge animals seemed to be studying us as we studied them. We all rushed to the side of the boat again. I truly thought we would flip. But we all wanted to see, to get as close as possible. We stuck our hands in the water, trying to make contact.
I am from Nebraska. In the chunk of the United States between the Mississippi River and the front range of the Rockies, the further west you go, the less emotional people are. It’s not that we don’t have emotions, we just prefer not to make a big deal about them. We might have life-changing experiences, but if it doesn’t involve a football, we are not going to talk about it.
I’m not saying that seeing that mother and baby was a life-changing experience for me. But, for some reason, as I watched them, so close to each other and so close to us, I cried. I guess I’ve been on the East Coast too long.
We screamed, we clapped, we cheered, we oohed-and-ahhed but eventually the pair moved on. However, that was not the end of the whales. One after another came up to the boat. One whale opened its mouth to show us its strange, curtain-like baleen. A couple others sprayed us with blow-hole water. One kept nudging the boat from underneath. I finally was able to touch one – it was smooth, but bumpy, and felt taut yet spongy. I know – not a very precise description. One of the participants described it as a firm neoprene feel.
By the end we were all tired, crusty with salt water, sun-burned, and, even though Becky had shared her ginger tablets with us, sea-sick…yet thoroughly amazed. To me it felt like two worlds – one old and wise, the other naive and learning – had had a moment. What the whales learned from us silly, goofy humans I can’t imagine. And I think I’m too dense to truly understand their wordless lesson. But I’m pretty sure it had something to do with trust, and forgiveness, and an idea that no matter how much separates us, when both worlds are willing to reach out, there is an opportunity for something extraordinary.
For me, the term “El Carnaval” conjures up scenes of a huge street party – hips swaying to latin beats, beads flying, shirts lifting, drinks flowing. But I’ve never been to Rio or to Mardi Gras or any Fat Tuesday celebration. So, although Mitch and I usually avoid crowds like the Plague because Mitch believes if he doesn’t, he will catch the Plague, I was excited to see that our caravan itinerary included a stop in La Paz specifically to attend El Carnaval.
La Maranatha RV Park in La Paz was our meet-up location for the caravan after our 15 days of freedom. It was fun to catch up with the others. A few of them had spent time in Cabo San Lucas, one couple had gone on a 7-day kayak tour out of Loreto, one couple had stayed in La Paz the entire time using it as a base camp for exploring. All reports were fantastic except for Cabo – no one really cared for Cabo.
Our wagonmasters, John and Becky, had reserved taxis for the group for the final night of El Carnaval. Since we arrived on Sunday, we had time to do some exploring. We’d heard the beaches around La Paz were beautiful so we decided to check those out.
I’m adding this as a word of advice to future travelers – if at all possible, don’t go to the beaches of La Paz on Sundays. All of La Paz goes to the beach on Sunday! For the beach that we had heard the most about, Playa Balandra, we couldn’t even get close. Cars overflowed the lot and parked along the access road all the way out to the highway. It was the same for El Tesoro. El Tecolote was huge enough that there was plenty of space for parking. And quite a number of RVers were dry camping there. We watched the scene for a few minutes – loud trucks driven by men holding beer cans in their left hands, the steering wheel in their right using beach volleyball games as weaving cones, unleashed Rottweilers and pit bulls frolicking in the waves – before deciding that maybe we should use the rest of the afternoon to stock up on groceries and do laundry.
On Monday we drove about 45 minutes south to the town of La Ventana (the window) to look for some mountain biking trails listed on our Trailforks app. It is another big kiteboarding area and so it has a lot of restaurants and campgrounds and Americans and Canadians. As usual, the trailhead was not marked but, once we found it, the main trail was easy to follow and was really, really cool! It was flat but it wound back and forth around and through stands of cardones and other crazy desert flora. Someone had even taken the time to label some of the plants. Of course, as fast as I was running, they were all a blur (completely kidding – the problem I have with stopping while running is that there’s a darn good chance that I might not be able to start again!).
Finally, Tuesday and El Carnaval – parrrtayyy! We were dropped off a couple of blocks from the parade route which was along the La Paz Malecòn (boardwalk). It looked like a fair midway with carnival games, food booths, kiddie rides, and stages. But the backdrop was pretty spectacular – a sunset over the beautiful Bahia de La Paz. It wasn’t very crowded at all. Some people from our group had gone the first night of the festival and had said that it was so packed that you could barely move.
We strolled along the malecòn, taking in the sites, until we came to an area of restaurants that had tables set out right beside the parade route. We asked a server how to go about getting a table and he said that as long as we agreed to spend at least 500 pesos ($20 dollars) we could have a spot on the balcony overlooking the parade. Perfecto!
So we sat at our table, the server brought us drinks, we met a fun bunch of people living on yachts in the bay, a nice young, local mother with her two kids, shared nachos and pizza with all of them, and had the perfect view of the “crazy” parade.
The thing is, it wasn’t a crazy, drunken, free-for-all at all. It was very much like a Midwestern county fair with great Latin music and dancing. The floats had young beauty queens in formal costume gowns smiling and waving (wrist-wrist-elbow-elbow), or bands with irresistible horn sections (the semi driver pulling one band joined in by letting off his air brakes in rhythm with their music), or school-aged dance teams. Being Mexico, there were some revealing costumes and one float had women doing pole dancing routines (to which the guy from the yacht said, “You’re not gonna see that in the Macy’s Day Parade!”) The risque-est of them all was a float with costumed adult “women” dancing – and only because we were informed by the young mother, in a whispered giggle, that they were really “hombres” (men).
After the parade the streets became a little more crowded but not bad. Kids zig-zagged around us, fathers carried toddlers on shoulders while mothers held tightly to small hands which gripped stuffed animals, glowing sticks, and lollipops. One of the most entertaining events of the whole evening was watching the kiddie Ferris wheel. It was only about twenty feet tall but it looked like it predated the Mexican Revolution. The operator manually advanced the wheel while loading. It appeared that the rule was “Under three years old had to be tied into the seat with a sisal rope knotted under the kid’s armpits. Over three – kid’s choice.” It took awhile to get all the seats filled – some kids started crying, some stared forlornly out at the crowd, others smiled and waved at their parents the entire time. Finally, it was loaded. The guy gave it a few good whirls as if he were spinning the wheel at the Price is Right until finally the motor caught and took over. I watched with my eyes partially covered, waiting for one of the none-tied in kids to get launched or slide out the bottom. But, other than the few that had been crying from the start, when the ride ended, all customers seemed pleased and alive.
It really was a perfect evening – good food, great entertainment, fun happy people, and we were back in at our camper by 9:30 pm.
Last year we had a 25 foot, triple-slide, Sunseeker Class-C motorhome – roomy, plenty of storage, an actual door to the bedroom so that Mitch didn’t wake up on my early schedule and I could go to sleep while he was doing whatever he does after 9:30 pm. We sold it and bought a 19 foot truck camper with no slides, no privacy, and virtually no storage. And we love it!!!
Why do we love it? Because of places like the campsite that we stayed at for three nights after we left Los Barriles. It actually wasn’t a ‘campsite’ and that was the beauty of it. It was a beach, with no facilities and no crowds – just a couple of other campers, a few tenters, and a handful of day-use surfers.
When you start shopping for your first RV, you are drawn into the photos on the brochures – the happy family camping in a beautiful, lakefront site steps from the water, forest-covered mountains in the background, sparks from the campfire drifting lazily up into a starry sky, not another soul around. The reality is that, once you get that 30 foot travel trailer, the only place you can take it is a campground where you pay an arm and a leg for that waterfront site and you are packed in so tightly with your fellow campers that you know what they are watching on TV, what they are cooking for dinner, and the exact moment they light their cigarette. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a site. The state and county parks in popular locations are booked a year in advance.
With the truck camper, since we have it on a 4WD truck with high clearance, we can get to some pretty cool places. Baja was our first trip with it. But up until this point, we’d still been in regular campgrounds. This beach was our first taste of what we’ll be able to do. We’re pretty excited about the possibilities!
The beach is known as “La Pastora” and it is a few miles north of the town of Todos Santos (on a terrible road, of course!). I’d read a lot about Todos Santos and had been pretty excited to check it out. It was supposed to be an funky, little artist’s/surfer town. The town itself is set slightly off the coast. But the beaches to the north and south are known for great surf.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in the town so this review is probably not completely fair. But I was a little, no – a lot, disappointed, in Todos Santos. It has become a day trip destination from Cabo San Lucas. So that means trinket shops filled with traditional Mexican crafts adorned with NFL team names, harried servers who’ve seen it all before, and prices that rival US beach towns.
Todos Santos is also home to the Hotel California. Urban legend has it that it is THE Hotel California of Eagles fame. The Canadian couple who bought it in 2001 and restored it list the many coincidences between their hotel and the song, but admit that it is impossible to know for sure because the Eagles ain’t talkin’. However the owners smartly took full advantage of the myth and included a large, bustling souvenir shop in their restoration.
The “coincidence” on their website that sold me on the myth was that the Mexican slang term for marijuana joints is ‘colitas’. I had always thought the verse said, “warm smell of cleat dust rising up from the air.” My entire life I’d wondered, what the heck is cleat dust??
Another interesting tidbit about the hotel is that it was originally built by a Chinese immigrant in 1950. Wanting the locals to believe he was Mexican, he changed his name to Don Antonio Tabasco (what a great choice!) But, sadly, the locals still only called him El Chino.
Most of the beaches to the south of Todos Santos have big resorts and gated communities. Playa Los Cerritos is one of the more famous surf breaks and, luckily, it still has a couple of public access areas. But, from what we’ve heard, you used to be able to camp right on the beach there. Now it has a beautiful, swanky hotel perched on a cliff overlooking it, beach clubs, and condos, condos, condos. No more beach camping.
OK – enough of the depressing, “you-should-have-seen-this-place-10-years-ago” stuff. We came to the west coast of Baja because Mitch wanted to surf. At Los Cerritos he got a great ride that almost killed him. And at La Pastora, he finally got out the last day we were there. I know he didn’t get as much surfing in as he’d hoped. But the waves were a little too big and powerful for what he’d wanted on his paddleboard. We’ll just have to skip work and return in the summer when the swells are friendlier. Bummer!
#truckcamper #todossantos #surfingcerritos #haciendacerritos
“Every beautiful spot in Baja is at the end of a terrible road.” I’d read this in a blog post that now I can’t find to give credit. However, from our many experiments while there, we found this statement to be absolutely true.
Our goal for the day was to see El Cañon de los Zorros (Fox Canyon) and the aguas calientes (hot springs). They were more or less in the same area according to other blog posts, near the town of Santiago which was about twenty minutes south of Los Barriles. For once I had good directions, or so I thought, so we weren’t too worried about the fact that we’d gotten off to our normal late start.
We soon found out that the directions made absolutely no sense. We went down a dirt, washboard road for a few miles and then turned around thinking it couldn’t be right. After we’d turned around, we passed a minivan. They slowed and asked if we’d come from the Canyon. We explained that we were looking for it, too.
“We’ve been driving around for two hours,” said the driver. “We’ve tried every other road in town. This has to be the one.”
We weren’t convinced so we took the one good piece of advice from the directions. “If you can’t find it, ask someone in town.” Yep, it was back out that terrible road.
To be completely honest, I didn’t think the road was that bad. It was solid washboards, long, dusty, and narrow (almost impossible for two cars to pass). But, other than the narrowness, it wasn’t too different from the gravel roads in Nebraska. We only had to use the 4WD once and that was because we’d missed a turn. It seemed never-ending, though, probably because we were never sure we were heading in the right direction.
This is my piece of advice for anyone going to Cañon de los Zorros: It is in El Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo. There were plenty of signs for El Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo. But we assumed two things: #1 – surely the directions would have mentioned the fact that the canyon/waterfall was inside of El Rancho; and #2, surely the signs for El Rancho would mention something about the canyon/waterfall if they owned it. Well, you know what they say about assuming (and don’t call me Shirley).
Finally, we arrived. We got there right behind the minivan we’d seen earlier. We put Brandi on her leash and went to the little hut to pay our entrance fee where the man told us, “Sorry, no dogs.” Ugh. It was too hot to leave her in the car so we took turns hiking to the waterfall.
It was only about a 10 minute hike. And the second I saw it I knew immediately that the long, dusty drive, the no dogs rule, the entrance fee (I can’t remember what it was but I think it was higher than I thought it would be), was all totally worth it. A 30 foot waterfall, sheer rock walls, a palm-tree lined pool – in the middle of the desert. Indescribable. I hope Mitch’s video conveys what words can’t.
I traded with Mitch. One of the Ranch’s dogs followed him all the way to the waterfall. I guess it didn’t understand the no dogs rule. Hmmm…
By the time we left it was too late to make it to the hot springs. We’d get an earlier start the next day.
I really wanted to check out the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo on the East Cape area. It is an underwater park known for incredible snorkeling and diving. Also, I had read some blog posts that talked about the great, free camping opportunities on the beach there. We were leaving Los Barriles in two days but didn’t have another campground lined up. And there were supposed to be a couple of surf breaks that Mitch wanted to check out.
We turned off the main highway and drove through the town of La Ribera all on great roads. We continued going south. The road was newly paved, very smooth, easy driving. But we knew it was going to change. And about 5 miles beyond La Ribera, it changed with a vengeance. Dirt, washboards, sharp rocks, dips, potholes (can you call them potholes if there wasn’t any pavement to begin with?). I think it was less than 20 miles on this road but it took us over an hour to get to Cabo Pulmo.
Maybe it was because the sky clouded over, maybe it was because it was very windy, maybe it was because, every 50 yards or so, menacing, red lettered “Private Property” signs hung on barbed-wire fences – but, I have to admit, it wasn’t our favorite area in Baja. Don’t get me wrong, the water views were still amazingly beautiful. But we just didn’t get the fun welcoming vibe that we’d gotten everywhere else.
We came across the first camping area that we’d read about. I don’t know the official name of it but we christened it “Basura Beach” (basura means trash). We drove through the entrance gate thinking we’d find someone in the campground to ask about the policies since there were so many private property signs. But it was eerily quiet. We drove past abandoned 5th wheels and truck campers, past a camper that had made its home in the ruins of house, past a camper that was part bread truck part lean-to cardboard shanty. Any open site had piles of trash in it. And the beach was completely covered in rocks. We weren’t feeling the love.
This campground was only about a mile from the tourist town of Cabo Pulmo. There must be a time of year when this place is wall-to-wall people because it had as many snorkel shops as Key West. It was way too windy for any hope of snorkeling, though, so we kept going.
There was supposed to be another campground, called Playa Arbolitos, about 5 km beyond Cabo Pulmo. At about that distance we saw a sign on the turn off to a side road advertising a beach for kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling with the hours of operation. But just beyond the sign was a gate with the name of a development and the private property signs again. The gate was open but we figured it was, as the sign said, private. So we kept going.
We drove for about another 5 km and found another camping area. It matched the description of the southernmost camping area we’d read about – in a wash, fishing shanties on one side of it, a well. It, too, was surrounded by barbed wire with the private property signs. But, unlike the stangely quiet Basura Beach, there was plenty of activity here. We pulled in and, thinking there might be someone you were supposed to register with since there were fifty million private property signs, asked a guy outside his Winnebago how you went about camping here.
He looked at us like we were aliens and then, with much effort, said, “Find a spot. Camp” and with that he turned and walked away.
It was a really beautiful spot. A headland, a cove, sapphire-blue water. Had we driven our camper, we would have camped there. But it wasn’t spectacular enough to make us want to haul our camper over 25 miles of that god-forsaken road.
On our way back, we decided to take a chance and pull into the beach at the private property gate. The road curved around and down, past a small farm, and ended in at a trailer surrounded by stacks of kayaks and paddleboards. In the wash, just a little further, we saw a VW camper backed up against the hillside. The attendant confirmed that camping was allowed and let us check it out without paying. Our truck camper would have fit, but just barely. The beach was pretty and, had it been calm, it would have probably been a great snorkeling/kayaking/paddleboarding spot. But the camping area was claustrophobic and again, we’d have to return on that road. So we headed back north without finding camping or surfing.
Because of that god-forsaken road, it’d taken us much longer than we’d planned. But we decided we’d try to get to the hot springs too, if only for a couple of minutes. We drove through Santiago and headed south, as we’d been told. “Once you get out of town, just follow the power lines,” were the directions. By now, you know how the story goes.
We got there, finally. Terrible roads, multiple power lines, pausing at turns – “Which way do you think?”, stopping for directions. We only had about 15 minutes before we needed to start heading back. We parked over looking the hot springs area. We saw that a small stream had been dammed with a low cement wall which formed a pool above and below. We quickly changed into our suits and headed down the trail where we saw a woman shaving her legs in the lowest pool. Mitch, the germophobe, paused, said he needed to repark the Jeep, and turned back.
I continued on around the dam to the pool above. It was cool, no, cold. But there were about four people resting against the rocky cliff on the far side of the stream where someone had stacked up rocks forming a separate pool. It turned out that the hot water (and it was really, really hot) came right out of two little holes in the cliff face. They made room for me and as soon as I sat down, hundreds of tiny little fish surrounded me and started nibbling my skin. Weeiird. I’m told a lot of people absolutely love the feel of it. I guess I’m just not crazy about being eaten alive though. Mitch did finally make it back and sat with his swim trunks legs held tightly around his thighs, trying very hard to relax.
This, sadly, was our last adventure in Los Barriles. It was time to move on, with or without exactly knowing our next destination. There are some places on this earth that might not be instant, all-encompassing love at first site, but where, in a short time, you feel so comfortable that you know that you’ll be back.
Going out for Pizza
The word around town was that we had to try the pizza in El Triunfo. We’d passed through El Truinfo on the way from La Paz to Los Barrilles and it looked like many of the other towns along the highway – a cute church, many hollowed-out buildings, a couple of topes (speed bumps). But Becky, our ever up-beat wagonmaster, had assured us that it warranted a return trip.
We prefer to calorically justify our eating excursions so I started to look for blog posts or web guides for an activity to do in El Triunfo other than the heavy lifting required to get pizza slice to mouth. We’d seen a tiny square sign when passing through Triunfo with a bicycle and a directional arrow. Did I dare dream of a biking trail in this tiny town in Baja??
We didn’t find any trails listed on Trailforks (this great app that a mountain bike guide in Los Barriles had told us about). And many of the listings on the on-line search were for mountain bike tours covering all of Baja. But I did find a couple of posts, in Spanish, about a mountain bike race in El Triunfo – Ciclismo Baja Sur. It sounded promising enough and, although the maps I’d found were vague, we figured someone in Triunfo would be able to point us in the right direction.
El Triunfo was once a mining boom town. At its height in the 1890s it had about 4,000 – 10,000 residents. But when the gold and silver ran out, so did the mining companies. Now it looks like there might be a couple hundred people living in the ruins. But they are really cool ruins and a few businesses are moving in to restore the old brick buildings and breath life back into the town. One of two remaining chimneys used in the calcination process (whatever that is) was designed by Gustov Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower and they are trying to complete some much needed restoration work on it.
When we got to El Triunfo (it is about 45 minutes north of Los Barriles) we turned at the arrow/bike sign on the main highway looking for the trailhead. No luck. It is a very small town though so it didn’t take us too long to drive all the way through it, on both sides of the highway, searching for any other possible clues to this bike trail. Still no luck. We parked and I asked a bartender in a cute little restaurant if he knew anything about it. He said that he thought it was behind the chimney. We walked to the chimney but the area was closed due to the restoration work. As we were walking back to the car wondering what to do next, I noticed what looked like a goat trail at the end of a street leading down into a wash. On a piece of paper smaller than a business card stapled to a fencepost (not the closest fencepost to the street), was a black arrow pointing towards the wash. I followed it and found another arrow pointing north. We’d found the trail!
Have I mentioned that we’d only brought one bike? So I ran the trail with Brandi (that’s actually not a punishment – I really love trail running!) and Mitch took the bike. It was marked well at first, although the paper arrows would be destroyed after one major rain. But then, as we got further, the arrows were turned the other way. So we’d missed something, somewhere, but we continued on, going against the arrows. After a little over three miles, going through an arroyo, over some hills, and behind the chimney, we ended up back in town. I decided that I’d call it a day but Mitch wanted to go back through.
About an hour later, Mitch rode into town, relieved that he’d found his way back but with a big grin on his face. “You missed the really cool part,” he said. There’d been a turn that we’d wondered about when we’d passed it. He took it the second time and it ended up being some really fun single-track with great views. Too late though – my brain had moved on to pizza.
The pizza was in a restaurant called Cafe El Triunfo, in an old brick building that the owner has beautifully restored. It was a unique space with one relic-filled room leading to the next, patios, awnings, balconies, and an open air bar and brick oven overlooking the Eiffel chimney. We sat at the bar and watched the staff make our pizza and slide it in the oven while the resident Great Dane buried chunks of bread in the dirt around the patios to dig up later (the server told us that he always remembers every hiding spot).
I am not a pizza connoisseur – almost any dough with cheese makes me happy. But this was goooood!! Nice thin, crispy crust, fresh, fragrant basil, lots of mozzarella. Before we knew it, our large had disappeared.
Calorically speaking – I know I didn’t come close to breaking even. But Becky was right – El Triunfo was worth the return trip.
I’d read about this arroyo in a couple of blog posts and 4-wheeler websites. It’d been recommended to us as a nice day trip by a few people. I knew what was supposed to be at the end of it. But, looking at the bone-dry, wide-open mouth of Buenos Aires Arroyo just north of the town of Los Barilles where big dump trucks drive in and out with loads of gravel, I just couldn’t believe there would be a waterfall somewhere back there.
The word arroyo in Spanish means creek. But in Baja, where the roads cross the arroyos, they are remembrances of creeks. You can tell that at some point water flowed through it, but it is impossible to imagine. And in almost every arroyo anywhere near Los Barriles, well-worn 4-wheeler trails stretch off into the distance.
“Just pick a trail and follow it,” were the instructions we were given to find the waterfall that I was sure was going to be dried-up. A 4-wheeler is the perfect vehicle for exploring all of Baja and every gringo in Los Barriles uses them for everything from beach cruising to grocery shopping but since we’d towed our Jeep nearly 3000 miles from Delaware, we couldn’t justify the expense of renting one.
No one seemed to know the distance to the “waterfall”. ‘Take plenty of water’ was the only advice. We’d been driving through soft, deep gravel/sand for about 20 minutes and hadn’t seen another soul. As close as this was to town, I’d figured there would be a steady stream of explorers, but the only people we’d seen were two horseback riders way back at the mouth.
The rock walls on either side of the arroyo were getting taller and steeper. The canyon was narrowing. We started to see some green vegetation along the edges. Then the sand looked wet. We kept going, very slowly, worried that we might get stuck in one of those jello-y wet sand situations. And then we crossed a little stream of water that snaked back and forth from wall to wall. Where in the world did this come from? The stream got bigger, we had to drive around and over big rocks now. Finally we stopped, deciding it’d be better to explore by foot.
It was so quiet. The wind back at the beach was whipping the kite boarders into a frenzy but here, not even a blade of grass moved. A little further there was a deep, saffire-blue pool filled with cattails. We splashed on. There were no tracks here to follow, no footprints. The landscape was beautiful but eerily empty. The canyon made a sharp turn. We rounded the corner and there it was – a beautiful little stream tumbling down a wall of boulders from a palm tree-lined pool above surrounded by a handful of people in beach chairs gripping beers. “Welcome to Canada,” they said with a wave and a smile.
The pool at the base wasn’t big enough for swimming as some reports had said. And the cascade was much smaller than in the reports as well. But it was incredibly amazing to me. That this little paradise could exist where just a couple of miles down the wash looked like the Sahara, was shocking. The Canadians, who’d been coming to Los Barriles for years, said that the arroyos change all of the time and that the waterfall used to be much higher. “See that hole,” they said pointing to a ground level divot in the canyon wall. “Last year that was about 12 feet up.” Hikers scrambling down the side of the waterfall told me that you can follow the stream for a long distance back to a slot canyon with a bigger waterfall. That is on my list for the next trip to Los Barriles.
We’d also been told about a beautiful beach a ways north of town (again, very vague distances) that was great for snorkeling. Some had called it Snorkel Beach and some had called it Punta Pescadora. The road out to it was a dirt, rock-strewn track along cliffs with incredible but scary views better suited to 4-wheelers but passable with the Jeep.
It is hard to know when you arrive at a ‘beautiful’ beach in Baja because they are all beautiful. You come around a headland and see a scallop of sand with the desert mountain back drop and you say, “That is amazing.” Another headland, another stretch of sand. “That is incredible,” you say. On and on it goes. But we knew when we arrived at Snorkel Beach.
For me the water was too cold for snorkeling and besides, we hadn’t brought any gear. But we paddleboarded around the rocks and could look down into the clear water and watch all the fish – so it was like dry snorkeling. A gleaming white hotel/restaurant peeked down on us from the cliffs above the beach and once we’d gotten sufficiently baked we decided we needed to test their fish tacos. Sitting on the patio of the aptly named Punta Pescadero Paradise Hotel in the warm Baja sun with a 180 degree view of beaches and mountains and the Sea of Cortez, a cold beer in one hand and a taco in the other, was definitely one of my versions of paradise.
The town of Los Barriles is a comfortable, friendly, gringo-ized spot that would make the most nervous traveler relax. It has a German restaurant, an Irish restaurant, a pizza place, a bowling alley, pickle ball leagues, convenience stores, a decent grocery store, and plenty of happy hours and burgers and fries. The town even hosts a huge dog show at the end of February to benefit the local humane society. And the nice thing is that it doesn’t feel like a resort town – yet.
We stayed at a campground called Playa Norte. It was about a mile north of town directly on the beach and was one of the cleanest campgrounds we’ve ever experienced on either side of the border. The owner, William, and his staff were constantly working on projects. One of the employees, Emilio, walked the beach and campground every morning starting around 7:30 picking up trash and greeting the guests. Having a such a comfortable, beautiful home base made it very easy to explore the waterfalls, hot springs, mining towns, surf spots, and beaches of Baja Sur – when we were able to tear ourselves away!
The reason we chose the Baja Winters caravan over all the others was because, once they led us into the very southern portion of southern Baja, they cut us loose giving us 14 days of ‘on your own’ time . This was the perfect compromise for Mitch and me – help us get acclimated to a different system and then let us make our own discoveries and mistakes.
Because the drive from Santispac to Los Barriles (our freedom time jumping off point) would have been too long, we stopped overnight at Ciudad Constitucion. Situated on a flat stretch of the Transpeninsular Highway surrounded by lots of agriculture, the town appeared tidy and organized. The most memorable things from Ciudad Constitucion were it’s main street with its strange traffic pattern (there was a regular two lane road in the middle and then an extra lane on either side. You weren’t supposed to make left turns from the road in the middle. To make a left turn, you went into the right lane and then, at the next four way stop sign, you would turn left across all lanes of traffic – a little scary. I guess it was kind of like New Jersey’s jug handles without the handles.), Mitch finding his Baja hat, and my humbling experience at the big supermercado (super market).
After looking all over the store for fresh guacamole I finally went up to the customer service desk and asked, “Tiene guacamole?” (Do you have guacamole?”) As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, I used to have a decent grasp, both speaking and understanding, of the Spanish language, most of which I’ve forgotten. But I still thought that my pronunciation and accent of the vocabulary I remembered was tolerable. However, after my question, the young guy looked at me like I had two heads. So I tried to explain, thinking that, even though every restaurant we’d been in sold it, maybe guacamole was not a thing grocery stores here carry pre-made. “Con aguacates?” I added. (With avocados?)
“Oh, si, aguacates,” he smiled, led me to the huge bin of avocados in the produce section, and began choosing avocados for me.
“No, gracias,” I said. “Guacamole.” Still no recognition on his face. Maybe they call it something else here in Ciudad Constitucion. So I started listing ingredients and making hand gestures. “Con aguacates picados (chopped avocados) y ajo (garlic) y cebolla (onion).” All the time making the motions of chopping, mixing, and scooping a chip through dip.
Finally his face opened up. “Ahhh,” he said. “Guacamole?”
The next day, due to road construction, we had the worst day of driving yet. When they are repaving the roads here, they don’t shut down one lane and then the other, they close off the entire road and reroute all the traffic (18-wheelers, double tankers, 44 foot RVs) onto horrible, steep, sandy, washboard and boulder riddled unpaved side roads. We had to put our truck into 4WD to get up one hill. The other RVs had to go one at a time, letting the driver in front get up the hill so they could get enough speed to make it all the way up.
But finally, we made it through the construction, through the city of La Paz, over a few more ruggedly beautiful mountains and down across a few washes to the windsurfing, four-wheeling town of Los Barriles on the Sea of Cortez where our 14 days of freedom started. No more group pot lucks, no more 8:00 am line-ups, no more scheduled bathroom breaks – a vacation in our vacation. Much more to follow…
(Spoiler alert – we are no longer in Baja. For awhile there it seemed like either we had internet with no electricity to turn on the computer, or vice versa, or we were too busy exploring to sit down and get a post out! So we’ve got a little catching up to do!)